Some people may not consider history to be the sexiest topic, but for podcast hosts Lauren Gutterman and Gillian Frank, the histories of sex and sexuality are unique keys to understanding both the past and the present. Sexing History brings these lesser-known stories of history to life through short-form podcast storytelling rather than academic books and articles.
The show is co-hosted by Lauren Gutterman, Assistant Professor of American Studies, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Gillian Frank, Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion. Through collaboration with a larger community of scholars of sexuality, Gutterman and Frank present engaging narratives about everything from Evangelical women’s sexual “marriage manuals” to the story of an African-American doctor who was convicted of manslaughter for performing an abortion post-Roe vs. Wade. I spoke with Gutterman and Frank to learn more about Sexing History, the scholarship that developed its stories, and the role of the podcast format for bringing history to the general public.
TiP: Could you talk a bit about how Sexing History got started? How did you come to decide on the podcast as a format for this public history project?
GF and LG: We both love listening to podcasts, and we saw a need and opportunity for a podcast focusing on the history of sexuality in the US. As editors at Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality, an international history of sexuality blog, we had already been editing and writing short pieces on sexuality history for a public audience. We thought that the podcast format might allow us to reach even greater numbers of people.
This past summer we settled on the name Sexing History, designed a logo, and began establishing our online presence and social media profile. We also began working with a talented team of producers on the project: historians Rebecca Davis, Saniya Lee Ghanoui and Devin McGeehan Muchmore. Allen Zwickler of the Phil Zwickler Charitable and Memorial Foundation generously provided us with the necessary start-up funds to purchase recording and editing equipment, and we were able to launch Sexing History this fall.
TiP: What are some of the goals that you have set out for Sexing History? What are the most important tasks you hope to accomplish by engaging with the history of sexuality in this format? How do you go about selecting topics for your podcast that speak to contemporary interests and concerns?
GF and LG: Sexing History aims to provide listeners with an historical context for contemporary debates over sexuality. In a twenty-to-thirty-minute podcast we are limited in the terrain we can cover. So we try to take a close look at a particular individual or story as a way of exploring much broader social issues. For example, our first episode on Aaron Fricke’s 1980 legal battle to attend high school prom in Rhode Island with a same-sex date addresses broader issues including queer youth activism and social anxiety around young people’s sexuality.
We brainstorm potential topics as a group and focus on stories that allow us to add something new to the conversation. We have focused on issues that interest us personally and that speak to the present in some way. Our episode on Dr. Kenneth Edelin, an African American doctor who was convicted of murder for performing an entirely legal second-trimester abortion after Roe v. Wade, has perhaps the clearest resonance with the present, as the House just recently passed a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks, and thus criminalize doctors who performed such procedures. This newest bill directly reflects the ways that the anti-abortion movement shifted tactics after Roe v. Wade, to focus on restricting the availability of abortion rather than directly overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling.
TiP: Who are you trying to reach with this project? Do you foresee collaborating with students in the future?
GF and LG: We’re trying to reach the widest possible audience. We hope that our podcast attracts listeners who are intellectually curious and interested in powerful stories about the past that help us understand our present moment better. We already collaborate with students. Our producers Devin and Saniya are currently completing PhD programs, and we welcome pitches from students for story ideas.
TiP: Have you gotten any feedback on Sexing History just yet? If so, what are people’s reactions to it?
GF and LG: So far the feedback online and in person has been supportive and enthusiastic. We’ve heard from historians, journalists, and everyday folks who like listening to podcasts that our episodes have sounded professional and that our stories are compelling.
TiP: How has researching, writing, and performing for a podcast informed your own work?
LG: As a teacher and a scholar I care a great deal about storytelling, about finding ways to make the past relevant and accessible and engaging. But working on Sexing History has helped me to think more precisely about storytelling techniques like building a narrative arc, providing context without losing the through-line, crafting a satisfying conclusion. I haven’t had an opportunity yet to apply these new skills to my academic writing, but I expect that the experience I’ve gained working on Sexing History will make be a better writer generally.
GF: I echo everything Lauren says above. I would also invert the question and say that our own work thus far made creating Sexing History possible. Lauren and I both have written for popular audiences and have experience translating difficult or obscure ideas for audiences outside of the academy. We also have experiences working together and with a larger team on joint projects. Whereas much of academic work is solitary, we’ve thrived on collaboration.
TiP: Do you have any advice for students and/or scholars who are interested in expanding their research to engage a broader audience?
LG: Try to avoid academic jargon. Know that in writing for a broader audience you will have to streamline your story or issue. And cut out a lot of information that you might include in an academic text.
GF: Remember what made you fall in love with your research. Bring that excitement and energy to your writing. If you can highlight the stakes of your scholarship—why it matters and why it excites you—you’re already halfway there.